Funeral services for Walter L. Gordon, Jr., a legendary Los Angeles trial attorney, drew scores of prominent elected and appointed officials and noted civic and community leaders.
For nearly seven decades, Gordon, who died April 16 and would have been 104 on June 22, represented mostly African-American clients with an irrepressible combination of dignity, wit and style.
In addition to successfully defending thousands of blacks during his long career, Gordon left several other enduring legacies. One of the more prominent among them was mentoring a generation of young, African-American lawyers from the 1940s forward.
Although the law school graduates he shepherded were very bright, dedicated and single-minded, there were then no opportunities for African-Americans to practice in white firms, simply because of their color.
“Young black lawyers (would have had) no place to go, had it not been for Walter Gordon,” Leo Branton, 90, told The Los Angeles Times last week. Adding insult to injury, the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s whites only clause also barred blacks from membership.
“He made a tremendous contribution and was a mentor to almost every lawyer who came along during the first five years I was in practice,” said Branton, who welcomed his first clients in 1949.
Over time, Branton’s expertise attracted a large stable of famous defendants, including Angela Davis, members of the Black Panther Party, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole and Dorothy Dandridge.
When Gordon opened his law office in 1936 on Central Avenue, then southern California’s hub of black life and culture, Los Angeles was as segregated as many of the South’s most rigid cities.
In the 1930s, there were only an estimated 30 black lawyers throughout California, which posed a major dilemma for African-Americans charged with crimes, many of which they did not commit. Others faced harsh, maximum penalties for minor, insignificant and victim-less infractions.
Gordon’s role in defending them, said Lorn S. Foster, the Charles and Henrietta Detoy Professor of Government at Pomona College, “provided advancement for the race.” Very often, Foster explained, “blacks were accused of crimes they didn’t commit or had no access to counsel in California.”
Foster, an authority on black political development in Los Angeles, said, “Gordon once bragged that he had more cases on appeal before the Ninth Circuit District (the highest such court on the west coast), than any black lawyer.”
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